It was by accident, more or less, that we visited Castlerigg stone circle on 21 December 2016 – the day of the winter solstice. My partner and I were holed up in the Lake District for a few days after an exhausting year, beset by work stress and political upheavals. The weather was mostly foul and our hotel, the wonderful old Kirkstile Inn near Loweswater, was warm and well stocked with board games and beer. On the penultimate day, we decided we’d better do some exploring.
In my (admittedly limited) experience, megalithic sites are fiddly to access. Stonehenge can be glimpsed from the A303 but you need to pay for a shuttle bus to see the stones up close. To view the winter solstice sunrise from inside Newgrange, the magnificent passage tomb in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, you have to vie with 30,000 people in an annual lottery for just 60 tickets.
But getting to Castlerigg – one of the earliest stone circles in Britain, and among the most beautiful and intriguing – couldn’t be easier, or less competitive. We drove up a narrow lane called Eleventrees, fringed by ashes and oaks, and parked by the side of the road. A band of infinitely more dedicated solstice-chasers had stationed their caravans in a layby. There were signs of revelry – empty beer cans, a serious-looking sound system – but no revellers in sight. An icy breeze whipped across the fells, blowing through an open caravan window.
The sky had been a menacing grey when we set off, but as we slipped through the wooden gate and into the field it was beginning to clear, revealing patches of blue. We found ourselves on a curving plateau encircled by distant peaks: Helvellyn, Skiddaw, Grasmoor. When Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited Castlerigg with William Wordsworth in 1799, he described the mountains standing “one behind the other, in orderly array as if evoked by and attentive to the assembly of white-vested wizards”.
Druids also haunted the account of the gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, who, visiting five years earlier, judged “this situation the most severely grand of any hitherto passed. There is, perhaps, not a single object in the scene that interrupts the solemn tone of feeling impressed by its general character of profound solitude, greatness, and awful wildness.”
Not a great deal has changed in the immediate area since Radcliffe’s visit. There are 40 stones arranged in a flattened circle about 30 metres (98ft) across, some weighing up to 16 tonnes, and they’ve been sitting here patiently for 5,000 years doing … what exactly?
No one is entirely certain why Castlerigg was constructed. No evidence of burial has been uncovered here, nor can we say with confidence that it was built along astronomical lines. The best guess is that it was a place for scattered neolithic communities to gather, whether for ceremonies or perhaps trade. The discovery of three stone axes here in the 19th century suggests a connection with the neolithic axe industry in the nearby Langdale fells.
For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, we decided a ritual was in order, so we started running backwards around the circle three times. Maybe we figured it would bring us luck. If nothing else, it warmed us up a little, which was good because we weren’t particularly well dressed for the cold.
By now, the sun had come out and the clouds were dispersing. We lingered for a while longer, contemplating the vast expanse of time that separated us from the people who built this circle, and the corresponding smallness of our stresses and concerns.
Then we made our way back to the car. Passing the caravans, I peered through the open window. A piece of brightly coloured fabric was flapping in the breeze. Behind it, a pair of hands clasped a mug of steaming liquid. What had struck me as a particularly bleak scene on the way up now seemed oddly enviable. I wondered what it would be like to orient my life around a celestial calendar instead of a work-dominated one, visiting places such as this with proper intention and sticking around for days rather than fleeting half-hours. A bit chilly at times, I reckoned, but probably not that bad. Not actually that bad at all.
Other prehistoric delights
Bryn Cader Faner, Gwynedd
This bronze age cairn is encircled by a crown of outward-leaning stones. It’s a good two miles from the road but worth the hike.
Carn Euny, Cornwall
One of the best-preserved iron age villages in the UK. It features the remains of courtyard houses and a fogou – an underground passage and chamber built for purposes unknown.
Beaghmore Stone Circles, County Tyrone
A surprisingly large number of bronze age circles, cairns and rows of stones set in beautiful countryside.
Druid’s Temple, Yorkshire
There are various fake stone circles around the UK by devotees of druids and prehistory. One of the best was built by William Danby in the 19th century. It was modelled on Stonehenge and he even employed a mute hermit for authenticity.
• This article was amended on 28 June 2022, removing a reference that mistakenly dated the majority of stone circles in Britain to the bronze age.